Thoughts On: Waking Life - Where Animation Can Take Us


Waking Life - Where Animation Can Take Us

Thoughts On: Waking Life

An experimental projection of a dream meandered through by a dreamer.

Waking Life is an incredibly interesting film on a conceptual level. This is all down to the manipulation of the narrative image with animation which transcends the basic confines of the cinematic frame - especially that of an independent feature. What this means is that Linklater has shot himself a film as a mere canvas, a simple narrative iconically verbose in classic Linklater fashion, that is then layered with character and meaning through animation. Whilst this is an intriguing concept, the narrative it exists upon isn't incredibly poignant, meaning, it's not too memorable or particularly immersive. I find this to be, in certain aspects, truthful of another classic feature of Linklater's, Slacker.

I absolutely love Slacker, but only because I watch it very sparsely. Both Waking Life and Slacker do not have great potential for re-watches. This is because their narratives are almost entirely made up of conversations. Furthermore, these conversations don't stitch into much of a story; they just are; they are self-contained and interesting in their own right, but primarily ideas that aren't entertaining in the same respect a true narrative or story is. That said, Slacker, because of its complete abandonment of classical storytelling and linear narratives, is a better film. It is both more exciting and encapsulating with its fluid shift between characters and settings. Waking Life almost mimics this, but not to the degree Slacker manages; hence Slacker is the better filmic experience. However, coming back to the idea of these films not having great re-watch potential because of their verbose nature, when we look to Linklater's Before Trilogy, we see how to make this kind of film.


Despite being a mere conglomeration of conversations, these three films are phenomenal cinematic experiences and I re-watch them often. This is all because the dialogue builds into a story, an emotional one that has romantic narrative movement; its through Jesse and Celine's conversations that we both get to know them and watch them fall for one another time and time again. It's because of this emotional telling of a story that we can enjoy these films across multiple watches. All in all, in the same respect that a mathematician wouldn't enjoy solving the same complex equation time and time again, its rare to enjoy Waking Life or Slacker for its dialogue across multiple viewings. This is because intellectual pursuits/journeys lose their worth once we've made them. The same cannot be said for emotional pursuits/journeys. This is why the heavily intellectual entertainment of Waking Life is a lesser narrative than similar likes, namely, The Before Trilogy.

However, Waking Life is not a purely intellectual film based on words said; it's the image that lies at the foreground of the movie, thus, an attempt towards emotional story telling. Unfortunately though, I don't find the heavily artistic side to this film to be much more than a one-time-watch near-gimmick. As said, the idea of redrawing your film, using it as just a canvas, is intriguing. Nonetheless, there is always the question in experimental films of the experiment's effective. In seeing both Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, I have to say that this kind of film will unlikely be more than just an experiment. To delve into why, we should look further into A Scanner Darkly.

This is another film shot like Waking Life and is equally forgettable. This is because the narrative is rather flat and the animated layer brings very little to this. What this says about Linklater's style applied to this concept of redrawing your film is that its not too effective in telling great stories. We can't dismiss the whole concept because of this, but, both Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly are key representations of the idea. Waking Life approaches this idea from a purely conceptual level. The narrative is of a dream realm and the painted layer adds to this setting in an aesthetic way that strengthens its substance. A Scanner Darkly doesn't create this artistic veneer seen in Waking Life as there's a concentration on narrative. However, this leaves the animation redundant and myself questioning why I can't just see the film in its natural state. Because neither of these films work so well, we can begin to infer that the added layer of animation is somewhat redundant. When it justifies itself by adding artistic weight to a narrative, it doesn't produce a great cinematic experience and when it tries to support a more narrative heavy film, it doesn't make it much better. What this says about the experiment is that its interesting, but one rightly dead in the water as it really doesn't do much as a cinematic device. That said, maybe this device is waiting rediscovery and reapplication. Who knows where it could go without further experimentation?

Nonetheless, the point of my criticising this film and experiment is not just for critique's sake. What Waking Life represents is an incredibly, incredibly, significant effort in modern cinema. In his experiment, Linklater meant to bring together animation and film for the sake of art in a mature context. This effort thus exposes an enormous fault or downfall in modern cinema. What I want to talk about with Waking Life is the fact that there is a huge hole in cinema that has been left open by both audience and filmmakers, one that, as it is filled, will most probably welcome a new wave of cinematics that revolutionise the form.

The hole created by audiences and filmmakers is all to do with animation. In respect to audiences, we have dug ourselves into a dismal hole over the last 100+ years. From the birth of animation with Gertie The Dinosaur, animated films have been largely left to children. I find myself wanting to explode when thinking about the insanity of this. Though it is both pointless and rather stupid, this phenomena really hurts me. The reason why should be transparent, if not, think about paintings for a minute. What if painters only produced photo-realitsic art for adults and reserved less realistic works for children? This is an absurd concept that would never come to be, but if this was the way of things and it never changed I doubt we'd ever transcend a dichotomy of cartoonists and photo-realist painters to have varieties of art that are impressionistic, expressionistic and a plethora of other styles. What I mean to suggest with this is that you stagnate the possibilities what an art form can do when you break it up and compartmentalise it by things such as age group. This is what we see in the huge rift between animation and cinema. Disney is seen as Disney, something for the kids, something we all grow away from. Why is this the case? Why have we let this come to be?

The answer seems to be in the novelty of animation. Film also started as a mere novelty, something tantamount to early YouTube or Vine videos. People watched them because they were the product of new and interesting technology that could entertain - they weren't seen as a true art. For this reason, it took a while for films to start to resemble what we know them to be now in terms of narrative, editing and direction. People had to figure out that movies could be art, that you could tell stories with them that they could have an enormous effect on those that consume them. Animation was projected on a similar path. It started with simple shorts; an experiment and bet. (Check out Gertie The Dinosaur to understand what I mean). Animated movies then burst into true fruition with Disney's Snow White. Here the foundation for them as kids movies really solidified itself in a way still clear to this day. However, Disney did make a famous effort to branch away from this, and we saw it in Fantasia...

Fantasia is a phenomenal filmic experiment that had to grow on me - as it had to most people (this film was not a success, but later became a classic). What is almost heart-wrenching about Fantasia was the public's explicit denial of experimental animation. Whilst this was a family film, it wasn't a child's one, neither was it pure entertainment. There's great artistry at the core of Fantasia. If it was accepted by the public, we could easily be living in a different world. Sequences like the early earth/dinosaur one could have branched into a genre of animation that would have allowed us to explore other-wordly realms in a mature and scientific light. However, Disney stuck to their business model of children's films and Dinosaur films only ever became...


Excluding The Good Dinosaur, I grew up with and loved these movies. However, they represent the best of a niche that really itches to be explored. I know what you're thinking...

... but, hold on, we'll get to that.

What Fantasia clearly represents is what could have been a pivotal and revolutionary moment in cinematic history. If this film was received well, it is possible that animation could have became so much more than a form dominated by Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks. The true loss in all of this is that we've subdued an incredibly expressive art form. Not only does animation open up the cinematic realm to absolute anything you can imagine, but allows you great artistic capabilities. I mean this in respect to creating meaning in a film, in evolving cinematic language. It's through my Disney Series that I mean to point out just how important the work of this company is in a pretentious, artsy way. It's Disney that prove that there can be both intellectual and emotional depth added to a film that you can't really achieve with live action movies. When you see their work and realise that only they, along with a few others, are in this market, it's irrefutable that our perception of animated films as just for kids is preposterous. This, in the simplest respect, is how we've fucked ourselves in the ass with our view of animation, our handing it off to our kids like it's not worth our attention.

Now, I can't move on in the post without recognising a few details. The first is that, yes, anime isn't just for children and, yes, there's a huge market for them with hundred of millions, probably billions, of consumers. Anime, however, doesn't throw a wrench in the works of my argument. Despite my love of Studio Ghibli features and films such as Paprika, there is no anime, series of film, that comes near the best cinema has to offer in the form of works by Scorsese, Bergman, Kubrick, Spielberg, Tarkovsky, Hitchcock, Welles, Coppola, Gance, Fellini, Kurosawa... the list goes on. Why is this? A whole lot of speculation for another post. Nonetheless, yes, anime not being as good as film is a subjective view point, but it's one I stand by. But, back to the matter of wrenches in my argument; whilst there is such a thing as adult animation, the likes of Family Guy, American Dad and Hentai, really don't fit into the class of art I mean to discuss. Lastly, there's another side to why Fantasia didn't start a cinematic revolution in terms of animation, and that is a monetary one. Animation costs an awful lot of green and time to produce. Experiments aren't really something the industry can afford and so the reservation of animation for children has a lot to do with target markets and studios wanting to make the most of their money by concentration on the most fruitful demographic: young children and families, those that don't just watch the films, but watch them time and time again and want all connected paraphernalia. It's this monetary argument that is a huge explanatory factor of almost every gripe I raise in the post. But, don't forget where this post started: Waking Life.

Ok, moving along as briskly as we can, I'll leave traditional animation to the side because the likes of classic Disney pictures are a thing of the past that probably won't sprout a revolution nowadays. Where the revolution comes from, or has been slowly growing from is...

Yes, we now get to talk about Jurassic Park. The cinematic revolution that Jurassic Park is a huge staple of is of course CGI. Along with the likes of Terminator, this film opened our eyes to the fact that animation (in digital form) can create absolutely anything you can imagine. This is what animation has been screaming out for around 80 years at this point, but audience finally got it. Why did CGI work when animation failed (in a certain respect) though? This is an interesting question and possibly comes right back to photo-realism. Our relationship with cartoons in filmic form being for children seems to be what fuels the use of CGI. We demand it be used to create life-like things, objects and bodies we can't notice, that are ultimately hyper-realistic. If CGI's not photo-realistic, people like to gripe about the loss of puppets, models and such. Whilst this complaint has some weight, there's a lot people miss in this. As we've been discussing, realism isn't everything. I mean, we're using CGI to make aliens, monsters and light sabers for the most part, are we not? Moreover, we wouldn't call Dumbo shit because you don't believe that the elephant is actually flying. This is not to say that we should accept bad CGI, I'm simply saying is that we're seriously confining what CGI can do when we're saying it has to be photo-realistic. If we look to Waking Life, we can see an example of unrealistic animation applied to film with intriguing artistic intent. We can even look to Pixar to see what CGI without confines can do...


Without delving into the insanity of handing animation to kids again, let's look at the positive side of CGI. In short...


Whilst none of these films are incredibly good they're all good movies - Iron Man especially. In being good movies, these pictures are huge, not-so-sucky blockbusters. What these films then represent are two major aspects of what we're building towards. The first comes back to novelty and simple attractions. Just as all cinematic forms start out as interesting experiments that slowly evolve into great mainstream art, so will (hopefully) CGI of this sort. CGI started as an interesting trick when it first came into use during the 70s. However, it quickly became more of a reason to see a movie than 'just a trick' when it became a major component of films like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. This has only continued to expand with modern monster movies such as Godzilla, films like Avatar and, of course, comic book movies. CGI has thus become apart of the stories we tell and the worlds we create. This trend is inevitably going to take is to greater heights, heights to which we don't just use CGI to see big, shiny things punch each other. This point links into the second major point of this post: artistry. These films showcase phenomenal artistry in respect to form, in respect to aesthetics, but, not so much in terms of substance. This is my core gripe. If Disney films such as Inside Out can be so profound on an intellectual and emotional level for their audience of children, why can our (adult's) animated/CGI films do the same thing? The closest we get to CGI films with substance is seen in the likes of Avatar and Captain America: Civil War. These films play with little more than basic and boring moral questions as a subset of the film's conflict. The use of CGI is not used to tell great story with substance, it's merely there to add action and fantasy. This is the biggest fault of modern cinema.

However: Fantasy. I've just hit a major buzz word. The importance of cinema to all of us, whether we realise it or not, is fantasy. We tell stories as a way of projecting personally imagined things. We do this as a form of communication - and in the same way people love to talk and interact with people, they love to engage art in its many. What this says about communication and art is that it deals in the currency of imagination and fantasy; these are the driving forces of our lives for the large part. We live to be with others, to talk, to be entertained, stimulated, have a good time. Cinema is a huge part of human culture for this reason; it is arguably the best, most accessible and expressive art form available to us all. However, in keeping with the thought that cinema is imagination and fantasy in communication, ask yourself what you like to think and talk about. You like to think about the past, present, the everyday, the extraordinary. Cinema is an expression of this, we have genres to let us explore the past, the present, the everyday, the extraordinary. However, the degree to which we explore the past and the extraordinary in film has been seriously confined throughout cinematic history - all because of technology. Without the knowledge or means, we couldn't think, imagine or fantasise about space, other worlds or the scope of time with much substance in early cinema. In fact, there wasn't much substantial inquiry into space in cinematic terms until we got...

Without getting too deep into this behemoth, what 2001 represents is the expansion of narrative cinema - and in a huge fucking way. Like no other, Kubrick showed us that cinema could explore the past, the future, the extraordinary - and he did it with philosophical and artistic prowess that can have aspiring filmmakers shit their pants. With CGI and animation, we could have, and still can, work on expanding this aspect of cinema. We can push further into the future, we can push further into the past, out into the universe, in on ourselves. However, instead of doing this, we're too often given...

Whilst there is a sigh to be had here, Star Wars does represent something of another expansion animation and CGI affords. We don't have to continue to expand the cinematic horizons on realist terms, we can create absolutely anything with CGI and should strive to do this just as the likes of Abrams and Cameron have been doing. However, there needs to be an asterisk here. Keep in mind Kubrick. Keep in mind 2001. This isn't a call for a remake or hack rip-offs. Keep in mind the philosophical and artistic approach to the extraordinary that Kubrick had. In doing such, as a filmmaker, story teller or consumer of the arts, seek out content with form and substance, that deepens and expands cinema.

I could go on for thousands of words more, but I'll end here by bringing things back to Waking Life. Cinema is changing, it always has been and there's many components to change. Animation in the form of CGI is the driving component of change in modern film that will undoubtedly be the staple of this current cinematic epoch. I know this post won't change, in any way shape or form, how things are or are going, but there is a mentality I think is, or should be, developing. We want better movies, different movies that have the splendour of what we get now, but with more substance and originality. Looking to Waking Life, we see a cinematic symbol of how to move this trend of thought into reality. Experimentation, creating what we want to see with what we have is essential to fulfilling our masturbatory artistic goals. I say this to story tellers, filmmakers and spectators alike. Does it not make sense we make and consume films that open our world up to greater movies? Whilst the monetary and business aspects of CGI, big movies and cinematic revolutions are stifling, it's the likes of Waking Life that are essential to hold onto so we one day get to see the next 2001. And in an attempt to say I'm not just blowing wind out of my ass in this post, I direct you to the top of the page and my screenplays on the blog. The ideas and speculation in this post are what fuel my writing, everything I talk about on the blog and what I watch. Does this make me anything special? No, of course not. But, if you're reading this, maybe you feel as I do, maybe you can be apart of where animation takes us.

I then end on a question to you. What movies will the future bring with it? What kind of movies would you like to see? What are you going to do about that?

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